Exclusive: Dead refugee asked to go home
Just one month before he was found dead outside the Refugee Transit Centre in East Lorengau on Manus Island, Hamed Shamshiripour penned a desperate plea to return home to his native Iran.
“I ask you please to return me to my country Iran. It has been 5 years since I have been in the Manus camp and I have spoken to the personnel of this camp and told them that I would like to be returned to my country. But they have not given me any reasonable respond,” the handwritten request to Papua New Guinea Immigration read, on an official “Complaints and Feedback form” dated July 19.
“I have requested several times to be returned but I have not been given any answers. I am not in a good mental state. I beg you please to return me to my country.”
In the months leading to his death, Hamed would make repeated requests to return home to Iran. Most went unanswered.
His anguished family in Iran said he repeatedly asked to be sent home but was told his mental state prevented authorities from facilitating his request.
“Hamed had requested to be sent back four times,” his brother Ahmad Shamshiripour said in a telephone interview from Tehran. “Turns out one of the four times it was his decision not to come back and the other three times he put in the request and was insisting to be sent back but no one followed it up and they even prevented him from coming back.
“And what I figured out, actually today, was that they said that the PNG authorities had said they cannot take responsibility for Hamed’s flight safety.”
The family spoke to Hamed for the last time a day before his disappearance on Manus Island. He insisted authorities on the island were trying to kill him.
“He always repeated one sentence… we thought it is because of his bad mental condition that he is saying these words. But he always said: ‘Mum, they want to kill me here’,” Ahmad said.
“Hamed would say: ‘I swear to God, I am serious, here they want to kill me. Why don’t you believe me?’ ”
Hamed had been assessed as a genuine refugee before his death on Manus Island.
Some time over the past year he developed acute mental illness. Friends and other asylum seekers repeatedly warned authorities that he needed help for his increasingly erratic, unpredictable and sometimes violent behaviour.
The Saturday Paper understands that his anguished mental state was referred to the Australian Border Force’s chief medical officer a year ago. In January, Manus MP Ron Knight said Hamed was “dangerous to all around him and he needs psychiatric help”. He concluded: “There is none for him here.”
Hamed spent time shuffled between the Regional Processing Centre, the East Lorengau Regional Transit Centre and prison.
After June 2016 he experienced frequent periods of homelessness. He was seen wandering the streets, agitated and muttering to himself, often half naked.
According to one friend on Manus Island, journalist Behrouz Boochani, he was frequently taunted by local Manusians and sometimes beaten by police.
His brother Ahmad is certain it was the conditions on Manus that led to his psychological breakdown, as when he arrived on Manus in 2013 family and friends agree Hamed didn’t show signs of being unwell.
“Look, you might think that I will say he didn’t because I am his brother,” he says.
“But you can ask the authorities in Iran, anyone that knew him in Iran, or anyone in Australia that met him in the beginning and had an interaction with him, you can ask them. It was only since one year ago that Hamed had gotten his mental issue. He never had mental health issues in Iran.
“Obviously when they troubled Hamed so much … Hamed just since one year ago found mental issues there.”
Ron Knight told Guardian Australia that he had arranged for Hamed to be released from prison so he could access mental healthcare, but that he received none. Knight said he approached the Australian high commission in Port Moresby about Hamed being sent to a psychiatric facility, only to be told that PNG authorities were responsible.
What happened to Hamed’s requests to be returned to Iran is not known. It is understood that he was denied verbally on the basis that he was too unwell to fly.
The request form Hamed filled out was received by PNG Immigration, but it is not known whether that request was then forwarded to Australian Border Force or to International Health and Medical Services (IHMS), which is contracted by the Australian government to provide medical services to asylum seekers on Manus Island.
In response to requests about Hamed’s care and request form return, IHMS sent the following statement:
“IHMS is concerned with the inaccuracies and misinformation surrounding the reporting of the healthcare provided to refugees in Manus. IHMS is contracted to provide health and mental health services to asylum seekers and refugees residing at the Regional Processing Centre. We are also contracted to provide some primary health and mental health services to the refugees living at the East Lorengau Refugee Transit Centre. Refugees also have the option of accessing healthcare from the local health services and hospital. IHMS conducts welfare checks on refugees, however, like any patient, they cannot be forced to attend all scheduled appointments.”
When asked whether Hamed requested to be returned to Iran, and why that request was denied, Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection declined to comment. PNG Immigration did not return calls.
Immigration and Border Protection is responsible for the processing of voluntary returns from Manus Island.
With the Manus Island facility slated for closure by October 31, after the PNG Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional, refugees have had the option of residing in the PNG community or in the temporary transit centre. Refugees or those denied asylum can voluntarily return to their country of origin. Australia actively encourages asylum seekers to return, offering financial assistance to do so. In some cases, refoulement is forced on asylum seekers.
Refugees and asylum seekers who request to voluntarily return to their country are given up to $20,000 to facilitate that return.
To date, according to Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition in Sydney, as many as 400 asylum seekers have taken up the offer.
“I think the very telling thing is that out of the 1200 to 1300 people who were sent to Manus Island … that there has been such a small proportion in spite of all the things that people have been through on Manus Island, that quite a small proportion have accepted to return,” Rintoul said.
“Some of them are under enormous coercion so we always used the word ‘voluntarily’ advisedly when talking about people requesting to leave Manus to return to countries where they may still fear for their own safety.”
Nonetheless, Hamed hoped to be one of them. It was not to be.
Alone, untreated, repeatedly beaten by locals, police and fellow detainees, any option to escape was now legally closed to him. His requests went nowhere. He was trapped on Manus Island with no recourse.
“Ultimately Border Force has total control and there is nowhere that you can go to get some accountability,” Rintoul said. “There is no oversight committee. All you can ever try to do is appeal to various aspects of the same authorities that are actually controlled by Border Force.”
Hamed’s family say they want his final request to be honoured with the return of his body to Iran. Even that seems unlikely.
His body remains in Port Moresby and his family say PNG authorities warned them against pushing for an investigation.
“We told them we had hired a lawyer,” said Hamed’s father, Hossein Shamshiripour. “They said … if you want to waste more time we will just bury the body right here.
“And they threatened us. They said, ‘Do you want the body or not?’ ”
Rintoul says it is obvious that Australia should be responsible for the investigation.
“One clear reason is that people in Manus Island are under the responsibility of Australian authorities. Australian authorities are responsible for the maintenance and functioning of the facility there,” he said.
“There are legal findings that have established that Australia is legally responsible for anything that goes on in those facilities.”
The Shamshiripour family has been given no point of contact and say no one appears accountable.
“Hamed went to Australia with a thousand wishes and dreams,” Hossein said, “but unfortunately ... what was supposed to happen didn’t happen to him and they transferred him instead to Manus.
“The only thing that we want is that they give us the body and send him to Iran.”
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 2, 2017 as "Exclusive: Dead refugee asked to go home". Subscribe here.